Suzhou     苏州

Suzhou is a pleasant place. It’s difficult to pin down a tangible quality that makes it so pleasant. Perhaps the charm of Suzhou lies in the fact that it offers attractions that you won’t find anywhere else in the country. For those suffering from temple burn-out, the change of sights can be refreshing.

Although Suzhou is a massive city of six million inhabitants, it is dwarfed by the huge hulk of Shanghai just to its east, making it seem positively provincial by comparison. This illusion is enhanced by the manageable size of Suzhou’s walled old town. Within the city walls, it is easy to ignore the sprawling city outside.

Renowned for its classical Chinese gardens (the most perfect you will ever see) and its canals, one of Suzhou’s many labels is the ‘Venice of the East’, at least in tourism propaganda. But the Suzhou Tourism Bureau can be forgiven some excessive appellations for they do a truly wonderful job – Suzhou is one of, if not the most, accessible city for foreign tourists in all of China.

Aside from its gardens the city holds some other attractions, but of more interest is wandering the canal-lined alleys and streets of the old town. You will find some absorbing scenes of everyday life as well as quiet, picturesque lanes.

Around Suzhou, on average 20km from the city center, are a number of canal towns. These beautiful towns are a photographer’s dream. While the walled city of Suzhou itself features numerous canals, these towns take it a step further with canals acting as the main arteries.

In addition to a strong tourist industry, Suzhou also attracts many foreign businessmen who see the city as an alternative base to Shanghai. As a result of the foreigner influx, Suzhou has a good range of western-style restaurants and a solid if not scintillating nightlife scene.

Who should travel to Suzhou?

Anyone who can – Suzhou is recommended for all tourists to China. What it offers really can’t be seen anywhere else. Suzhou is only 45 minutes from Shanghai by high-speed train. Even if you can only fit in a day trip from Shanghai, to take in just one of Suzhou’s gardens and a canal town, it’s well worth the effort. For those with more time, Suzhou has a whole lot more to offer. Suzhou can also provide a nice weekend getaway for those living in Shanghai (or one of the canal towns would be even more relaxing).

How long is needed to see Suzhou?

A (full) day trip from Shanghai is adequate to see one or two gardens and one of the canal towns. But for those who aren’t in such a rush, Suzhou is worth a minimum of 2.5 to 3 days. This allows time to see the major attractions in the inner city, visit one canal town and a bit of spare time to do some wandering.